Play Shin Megami Tensei
In honor of National Video Game Day (July 8), I'll be introducing my favorite video game franchise ever: Shin Megami Tensei.
Shin Megami Tensei is a massive and long-running franchise, with 11 mainline series games and 37 spinoff games. The first game came out in 1987, making this year the franchise's 30 year anniversary. That's a full decade longer than Pokemon, who celebrated its 20 year anniversary last year. The franchise can indeed be described as a more adult version of Pokemon-- same turn-based mechanics, same concept of summoning creatures to fight for you-- but darker and much more difficult.
Boxart for Shin Megami Tensei IV
The first games were called Megami Tensei I and II and named after the light novels of the same name name by Aya Nishitani. Megami Tensei means “Goddess Reincarnation” and refers to the heroine of the story, who is (spoilers!) a reincarnation of the Japanese goddess Inazami. After the first two Megami Tensei games, the series was rebranded as Shin Megami Tensei (New Goddess Reincarnation) because it no longer followed the plot of Nishitani’s novels and instead used storylines created by ATLUS. (The graphic celebrates the 25th anniversary because it’s celebrating the anniversary of the first SMT game, not MegaTen.)
Just like every game franchise, certain unique thematic and gameplay elements are common between games:
Post-Apocalyptic Setting: Almost every SMT game takes place in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo ravaged by demons, with a heavy cyberpunk theme. The original Megami Tensei was actually the first turn-based RPG with a modern setting, revolutionizing a genre that is almost exclusively medieval fantasy.
Negotiation: You don’t just throw a Pokeball at demons you want in your party. You actually have to talk to and negotiate with them to get them to join you. While it can be incredibly annoying (if I had 10 Macca for every time a demon ran off with my stuff or almost killed me trying to get them recruited…) it also lends a sense of personality and completely subverts the usual monotony of mon-based games.
Fusion: SMT was the franchise to popularize the “diminishing returns” anti-grinding system, adding to the game’s difficulty. As a result, keeping the same team for the entire game is unfeasible. In order to continuously have a powerful team, old demons must regularly be fused into new, more powerful demons. This opens up many new avenues for strategy and adds a unique complexity to the game.
Multiple Endings: A core part of the game’s storyline is the battle between order and anarchy. The protagonist is a blank slate that can pick either side, or choose the middle path.Throughout the game you will be presented with choices that will shift your alignment towards either law or chaos. Unlike most games, SMT’s best endings come from choosing neutrality- but it’s also the hardest ending to get.
New Game+: The game encourages replay value by adding bonus content to the game the next time you play it. Extra quests, hidden events, and exclusive demons are all examples. Since many demons are alignment-based, it may take up to four cycles to get 100% completion.
Getting Into the Series:
SMT games are renowned for their difficulty. They’re often described as “the Dark Souls of JRPGs”. As a result, they aren’t very kind to beginners… but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you are just starting out, I’d recommend with the last game in the series: Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. It’s for the 3DS, and is considerably less difficult than any of its predecessors, especially with the free DLC for an easier difficulty setting. It is prohibitively expensive on the eShop ($50? For a 3DS game? Seriously, ATLUS?) But physical copies are much more reasonably priced and can be ordered on Amazon or at a local store like Gamestop.